I meet the US novelist Benjamin Markovits in the atmospheric gloom of Blacks Club in London's Soho, an 18th-century house just around the corner from P B Shelley's old lodgings in Poland Street, and not far from Albany, Byron's rather grander gaff in Piccadilly.
It seems a suitably raffish spot to celebrate the culmination of one of the most intriguing fictional projects of recent years: Markovits's Byron trilogy.
This clever, riddling series began in 2007 with Imposture and continued with 2008's A Quiet Adjustment. The first of these dealt with Byron's early fame and his relationship with the tragic John Polidori, his doctor; the second tackled the love triangle involving Byron, his sister, and the woman he should never have married – prim, vengeful Annabella Milbanke. Now, Childish Loves looks both at Byron in youth and at Missolonghi, where he died in the cause of Greek freedom (and in pursuit of a beautiful, 15-year-old Greek boy).
The storytelling is not at all straightforward. Childish Loves has a framing device involving the papers of Peter Sullivan, supposedly a former friend of Markovits who, the reader is told, really wrote the two previous books and much of this one. The fictional "Ben Markovits" not only doesn't think much of Peter's work, he muses about the banality of readers who only want to know "how much is true". There's even a walk-on part for Markovits's real-life editor at Faber, Lee Brackstone. What's going on?
"One of my ideas was not to write the kind of historical novel in which you say: 'In 1823 something happened and London at that time was blah ....' There were certain things an average reader just needed to know and the [metafictional structure] grew out of that. But the simple answer is," Markovits goes on, "I like being able to expose the historical scaffolding. One of the tricks I play in the book is that I reveal my sources, in a pseudo, Penn-and-Teller way."
He winds up with a flourish: "These books are no more true than any average novel; it's just that the things that are true in them are totally true, literally factually true, whereas the things that aren't true, sound like they are." Satisfied?
Markovits has been fascinated with Byron since he was a teenager. Arguably the least-read today of all the major Romantics, Byron, he believes, deserves another look. "I think the late stuff is tremendous, and the early stuff, though not great, is fun. Don Juan is a beautiful poem. And I would like Beppo to be taught alongside 'Ode to the West Wind' and 'Ode to a Nightingale' as one of the great romantic poems. It deserves it."
Although the books were always planned as a trilogy, Markovits says he made no effort to make the different versions of Byron that appear in each book line up. "He's horrible in A Quiet Adjustment ," he says. "The marriage was not his finest hour. He's obviously a contradictory character but there's a lot that is likeable about him. Which isn't surprising, because he was widely liked! People wanted to be around him."
But still, the arrogance, the egotism, the cruelty to wife, children and mistresses ...
"On top of all the really quite foolish vanity, the sexual brutality and all of that," Markovits muses, "Byron could be enormously sensible and shrewd, and that's a very attractive contrast. I think he's nicest as a boy; not so nice at college, when he's just coming into his sexual power; and at the end I hope you sympathise with him again, when he has this ridiculous infatuation with a 15-year-old Greek boy who doesn't care for him at all."
Ah, yes, the boys. "Ben Markovits" in the novel remarks that: "By our own modern standards [Byron] was probably a paedophile and certainly a rapist, at least of the statutory kind," and the interpretation of different sexual acts is crucial to our reading of the trilogy.
"I'm generally interested in what's unhappy-making about sexual awakening," explains Markovits. "I think all sexual awakening involves a sort of coming out; it seems to be painful for people. I wanted to show various sex acts in different contexts, so we could judge what the moral value of it was. One of the things I wanted to do in the book was frame, in different ways, sex acts that we weren't quite comfortable with. In the end, do you want Byron to get together with the Greek boy? In a way you sort of do, right? Well, I did .... Okay, the boy's 15, he's a dependent, but he seems to hold all the power in the relationship and there's something dreadfully sad about Byron's devotion to him."
But it's the fully consummated incestuous relationship with Augusta Leigh that still has the power to shock. "It wasn't really that kinky, was it? He didn't know Augusta all that well as a kid; she was a half-sister," argues Markovits, adding unexpectedly: "Whenever I meet half-siblings, I always ask them, 'so how sexually attracted to each other are you?'"
I ask if he has siblings. "I've got three sisters. I don't feel sexually attracted to them though," he adds, deadpan.
So, how would he persuade a teenager to give Byron's poetry a try? His answer is typically thoughtful. "People have bad reactions to poetry for a reason. It's not that they don't know any better. Byron had the same antipathy to what he considered the poetical. He tried to write a more natural poetry. I guess that's what I would say." Then, after a pause: "And there's sex in it. Sex, swords, murder."
Childish Loves, By Benjamin Markovits (Faber £14.99)
'Rape scenes had featured in both of Peter's novels, scenes of sexual initiation, but this one struck me as a departure from the others: it was the only one involving a man and a boy. (Lord Grey was eight years older than Byron, which makes a difference at 23 and 15.) I don't want to say a writer can't write a scene like that without drawing on personal experience. But if there has been some personal experience, I also don't see how he can leave it out entirely.'